Why you should care
Because dogged determinism can be lonely work.
Moniek was forever getting into trouble, so when neighborhood children screamed his name down a nearby well, his mother assumed the worst. She began to wail, and it was her distraught figure that the young boy saw as he ran home. His mother had fallen victim to a cruel prank, aimed at reducing the Jewish mother to hysterics, as he later recounted in his biography.
His mom recovered, but 6-year-old Moniek Kroskof — who later changed his name to Michel Thomas — remained haunted by the joke, and the hatred that fueled it. Fighting hatred and striving to protect himself would prove powerful forces throughout his life, one that began in Poland in 1914 and saw him adopt new homelands, escape concentration camps and take down Nazis. In his later years, he developed a unique teaching method that promised — to the delight of stars like Woody Allen — to equip students with a language in just three days.
Shortly after the horrid joke, according to Christopher Robbins’ Test of Courage: The Michel Thomas Story, Thomas went to live with his aunt in Germany, where he worked hard to fit in and quickly mastered the language. Forced to flee Germany for France in 1933, Thomas faced a quandary: He couldn’t speak the language but was desperate to attend university. So he worked to dismantle French by applying what he knew about German grammar and, in the process, Robbins writes, began “to explore techniques that would eventually merge to become his unique language system.” It worked, and he earned a degree in philology in Bordeaux.
He cracked open the language and approached it in the simplest imaginable way that instilled, in the very beginning, a great deal of confidence.
Later arrested by the Vichy government, Thomas spent two years in concentration camps before escaping. His family died at Auschwitz, but Thomas joined the French Resistance, survived interrogation by Klaus Barbie — fooling the “Butcher of Lyon” with his French fluency — fought with the U.S. Army, was hired by the U.S. Counter-Intelligence Corps and uncovered documents that helped convict Nazis.
Learning of Thomas’ extraordinary adventures in the 1980s, by then complemented by claims that he’d taught French to stars like Grace Kelly, Herbert Morris, the dean of humanities at UCLA at the time, was incredulous. “I said … ‘You’re either the biggest fraud that walked the face of the Earth, or you’re a miracle man,’” he says. His conclusion? The miracle side of things. Still, in 2001, the Los Angeles Times questioned Thomas’ claims about his wartime activities. This “was a huge blow to him,” says Alex Kline, the private investigator on Thomas’ legal team in a suit he filed against the newspaper (he lost his defamation suit — such cases are hard to win — but was vindicated by being awarded a Silver Star by the U.S. for wartime bravery in 2004).
Heroics aside, Thomas is remembered by students worldwide who learned new languages through his unique teaching system. Morris had three days of Spanish lessons with Thomas and came away duly impressed. “He cracked open the language and approached it in the simplest imaginable way that instilled, in the very beginning, a great deal of confidence,” Morris says. No note-taking or memorization was allowed, yet within a few hours, “you already had a vocabulary of several thousand words.” Thomas explained how one’s mother tongue held words mirrored in the new language — nation to nación, for example — providing instant vocabulary. He then broke open the verb system in a way that enabled pupils to string together sentences in the present tense almost from the very beginning. Trouble was, the one-on-one courses were pricey and excluded those without means.
Morris tried to have Thomas collaborate with language professors at UCLA. But “his combination of arrogance and contempt just spoiled the whole encounter,” Morris says. When UCLA asked him to give it his system so it might be replicated, Thomas refused. Victoria Reiter, Thomas’ former student and occasional employee, says that given his wartime experiences, Thomas was very protective of himself and his hard work. He felt it was wrong that academics expected him to just hand it over, she says. “It was not within his experience, at all, that kind of academic ease in allowing other people to take what you had done and mess with it, use it, judge it or analyze it. He just felt that was completely disrespectful.”
But he also didn’t want his work to die with him. So Thomas allowed British publisher Hodder & Stoughton to create a now-popular language series based on his tapes, Reiter explains. The method itself, however, was never shared. Both Reiter and Morris were distressed by the fact that when Thomas passed away in 2005, at the age of 90, he died without passing on his system. “I think he thought it would carry on simply because it existed, and that it would prove itself to enough people that others would be interested in analyzing it,” Reiter says, referring to the tapes. The problem, she explains, is that Thomas’ special skill at assessing pupils’ needs wasn’t something that could be written into a formula.
Which is a shame, given that thousands speak foreign languages today thanks to him. Thomas, Reiter says, had even hoped to expand his methodology — something Rose Hayden, who taught with Thomas, refers to as neurological programming, or NLP — to other subjects. Math made easy, anyone? Reiter hopes that Thomas will be remembered as the expert teacher that he was. Morris agrees, adding that Thomas was a masterful pedagogue one-on-one, but sadly never got beyond that. “He was locked into the popularity he could gain by one-on-one interactions,” Morris says. And as a result of the “mesmerizing effect he had on the few he did interact with, he didn’t realize all of his potential.”